Connected and Capable

Article excerpt

First, civil society acted as an opposition force, then it brought a critical voice into major world forums. Now the time has come to offer alternatives

It all starts with a sense of powerlessness, springing from a paradox that can be formulated in many different ways but which boils down to a simple truth: humanity will have to make some pretty fundamental changes if it wants to survive. We clearly cannot rely on the main political and economic players--imprisoned in their agendas, hampered by short-sightedness and practical constraints--to take up the challenge. Instead, it's up to the ordinary citizens to organize on a global scale, and change from being powerless to taking a stand, joining the debate and drafting a different way forward.

The Charles Leopold Mayer [1] Foundation for Human Progress was set up in 1982 in Geneva with the aim of linking activism in the world to study of the future. At the time, our societies, though richer and wiser than ever before, seemed singularly unable to satisfy the hopes and most basic needs of their members. We had to weave a closer relationship between thought and action, between advances in knowledge and possibilities for human progress.

The foundation started out by supporting endeavours that brought these elements together--a novelty at the time--but these initiatives still remained isolated "projects." For example, one project in Brazil involved assistance in building a network across 10 regions to gather information on traditional branches of knowledge and contrast the findings with modern science. In Tanzania, a project aimed to improve agricultural training by making it more attuned to small farmers' needs.

While involved in these projects, we made two discoveries. Firstly, we found that solutions to problems must be made on the basis of each particular social context, though the problems themselves are broadly the same. A common denominator of issues cropped up in all the projects, no matter where they were taking place. But these shared characteristics were often hidden by the sheer complexity of local circumstances, rigid mindsets, institutional factors and different schools of knowledge.

This common denominator became the very basis of our programmes, and explains the importance we have attached to establishing networks. Equipping some of our partners with Internet, a potentially formidable tool for democratic progress, has thus become one of the foundation's priorities. …